• The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded pre-existing inequalities and created new ones in cities.
  • Effects of the pandemic can be lessened by protecting and focusing resources on those most at-risk.
  • Interactive city maps can provide situational awareness to help support the most exposed populations.

While all cities around the world are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, its impacts are unevenly distributed between and within them. Firstly, the virus and its variants disproportionately infect and kill the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities, the unvaccinated and people with pre-existing conditions such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

Furthermore, people living in poorer, marginalized and disadvantaged neighbourhoods are at greater risk than those residing in more affluent ones. Making matters worse, communities registering lower social and digital connectivity are potentially more vulnerable than those exhibiting stronger online and offline ties.

Disease outbreaks not only thrive on city inequalities, they deepen pre-existing faultlines and even create new ones. There is, for example, growing evidence of how the COVID-19 outbreak is increasing income disparities – including extreme poverty and billionaire wealth. The pandemic and associated lockdowns are also reinforcing pre-existing social, educational, racial and gender inequalities due to differentiated access to services, informal sector job losses and the extra household and childcare work burden imposed on women. These challenges are especially pronounced in neighbourhoods affected by concentrated disadvantage.

One of the lessons emerging from successive waves of COVID-19 is that its most pernicious effects can be lessened by protecting the most at-risk communities, households and individuals. Accurate, high resolution and up-to-date information on the characteristics of populations can help discern their susceptibility to infection and mortality.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to encourage healthy living in cities?

It can be tough to stay healthy when living in a big city. The Forum is responding through its Healthy Cities and Communities initiative by working to create innovative urban partnerships, which are helping residents find a renewed focus on their physical and mental health.

In 2020, the project continued to expand to new locations and has effectively helped communities impacted by COVID-19. Our work is continuing with concrete actions in 2021 where best practices and learnings from all partner cities will be shared, allowing other cities to replicate and scale.

In Jersey City, USA the Healthy Cities and Communities initiative is working with AeroFarms to deliver locally sourced vertically farmed greens to people in need. The initiative is also helping homeless people who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

In Mumbai, India (home to more than 20 million people) the initiative is working with the local startup community and engaging them on multiple sanitation challenges.

Learn more and find out how to join the initiative in our impact story.

Spatial and temporal visualizations can provide mayors, managers and service providers with situational awareness to better support the most exposed populations. Recognizing this need, SecDev Group developed a digital platform to help cities such as Amsterdam, Bristol, Chicago and Los Angeles respond to and recover from the current pandemic and prepare for the next one.

Created in partnership with urban leaders, companies such as R21 and MapBox and city networks such as the C40, Metropolis and the Mayors Migration Council, the SecDev dashboard visualizes over 40 lead indicators to assess the extent of urban vulnerability and resilience at the neighbourhood scale.

Inspired by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) social vulnerability index – which draws on 15 variables – the SecDev platform hones in on the demographic, health, lifestyle, social, economic and digital characteristics of the urban environment in order to visualize the wide-ranging strengths and weaknesses of all communities. As expected, the maps reveal significant sectoral and spatial variation in vulnerability and resilience within cities.

Mapping vulnerability and resilience

1. Amsterdam

Amsterdam registered a comparatively low COVID-19 mortality rate over the course of the pandemic. The city was affected in material ways, including sharply declining tourist revenue. Infection and death rates were heavily spatially stratified, with most vulnerable communities experiencing higher levels of mortality than resilient ones.

The variation in COVID-19 infections and fatalities is correlated strongly with deeper inequalities across the city. The SecDev dashboard found that the top five most vulnerable neighbourhoods were 66% migrant, whereas the most resilient neighbourhoods had just 10% of their population made up of migrants.

Meanwhile, the unemployment and poverty rates in the most economically vulnerable areas were 16% and 6.5% respectively as compared to 0% and 0.2% in the most resilient neighbourhoods. What is more, the most vulnerable areas registered just three healthcare facilities per 1,000 inhabitants as compared to 20 per 1,000 in the most resilient tracts.

2. Bristol

Bristol experienced a moderately high death toll from COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic. It also suffers from income, housing and educational inequalities, themes widely recognized by scholars based there. Data collated by SecDev shows that 45% of the population in the most vulnerable lower layer output areas (LSOAs) were minorities as compared to just 7.7% of people in resilient areas. Likewise, some 32% of residents live below the poverty line in the most vulnerable LSOAs as compared to just 2.8% of people in the most resilient neighbourhoods. Vulnerable residents are also twice as likely to smoke and suffer from obesity.

Exposure to COVID-19 and the likelihood of vaccinations also appears to be connected to overall neighborhood vulnerability. SecDev found that the average LSOA across Bristol registered 115 infections, 1.9 deaths and 44% vaccination rate between March 2020 and February 2021. The five most vulnerable tracts, however, reported 163 infections, 3 deaths and 35% vaccination. In other words, the number of cases on average were roughly 40% higher in highly vulnerable areas compared to the city average. Over the same period, the five most resilient LSOAs reported just 107 infections, 2 deaths and, intriguingly, 40% vaccination. The comparatively low vaccination rates are likely due to comparatively recent roll-out of doses.

3. Chicago

Chicago has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and has among the highest levels of wealth inequality and social immobility in the US. This is often attributed to a legacy of segregation and racist housing practices such as redlining, contract buying and unequal lending. Predominantly black neighbourhoods register more poverty, less access to healthcare and greater exposure to climate risks.

The SecDev dashboard shows in the most vulnerable tracts, over 86% of the population are black compared to the most resilient tracts where 90% of the population is white. Average unemployment and earnings in the most vulnerable areas are roughly 11% and $12,000 on average as compared to 1% and $101,000 in wealthy tracts. And residents of the most vulnerable areas are between two and 10 times more likely to suffer from arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.

A SecDev review of Chicago’s 801 census tracts detected an average of 7.4 deaths, 382 infections and 54% of the population vaccinated between March 2020 and August 2021. Not surprisingly, Chicagoans living in wealthier parts of the city exhibited more resilience to COVID-19 related infections and fatalities than the average tract. Indeed, the five most resilient census tracts registered just 3 deaths, 226 cases and a 65% vaccination rate, substantially better than the average. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable tracts reported caseloads closer to the average along with significantly lower vaccination rates than the average.

4. Los Angeles

Los Angeles has been seriously impacted by COVID-19 and is also ranked among the top 10 most unequal and spatially segregated cities in the US. As in other cities, coronavirus-related infections and deaths were concentrated among overcrowded households and poorer residents of colour, those least able to afford falling ill.

Pacoima, a predominantly Latino community, registered an infection rate five times that of Santa Monica. The dashboard confirms that the most demographically vulnerable tracts are primarily Hispanic with a median age of 31. The most economically vulnerable tracts register a 6% unemployment rate and an average per income of $12,700 (by contrast the most resilient registered 3.8% unemployment rate and average incomes of over $95,500).

In the most digitally vulnerable areas, just 81% of residents have mobile phones, 47% have phone plans and 63% have access to broadband. By contrast, in the most resilient areas, over 99% have phones, 84% have phone plans and 86% have broadband access.

A review of cumulative COVID-19 infections, deaths and vaccinations across all of LA’s 1,148 census tracts helps demonstrate the way preconditions affect virus-related outcomes. On average, each census tract registered 561 infected people, 10 deaths, and 69% of the population vaccinated (between March 2020 and August 2021). The five most vulnerable tracts according to SecDev’s analysis reported an average of 639 infections, 19 deaths and a vaccination rate of just 59%, much worse than the average.

Meanwhile, the five most resilient census tracts registered just 280 cases, 5 deaths and a vaccination rate of 75%, substantially higher than the average. Ultimately, when compared to the average, vulnerable tracts exhibit significantly higher infection and mortality and visibly lower vaccinated populations.

Future pandemic response

The first step to effective pandemic response and recovery in any city involves routine, rapid and reliable diagnostics of at-risk populations. While some wealthier cities are developing visualization tools to monitor COVID-19 infections, deaths and vaccinations, there are surprisingly few platforms that take the temperature of overall population health, socio-economic and digital vulnerabilities in neighbourhoods over time and space.

Interactive digital platforms such as those developed by SecDev and its partners can help drive decision-makers to more data-driven and informed choices. Empowered with better evidence, city leaders and service providers can help design-in and bolster resilience where it counts.

Support for the city dashboard was provided by the Hilton Foundation, Open Society Foundations and Walder Foundation.